First United Methodist Church
June 18th, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Bird Watching in the Parking Lot
Let us pray: Lord, open our hearts this day to receive your word for us. Give us courage and hope as we hear the message you have for us today. AMEN.
Every year the National Audubon Society sponsors the Great Backyard Bird Count, which is an opportunity for both novice and experienced bird watchers to do exactly that – count birds from their backyard. Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes or for as long as they wish during the four-day event and report their sightings. Anyone can take part in the count, and you can participate from your backyard or anywhere else that you prefer. The purpose of the event is to give the Audubon Society a snapshot of how our bird populations are doing.
Because parsonages tend to be located in developed suburban neighborhoods rather than out in the country, one of my favorite places to watch for birds is in parking lots. This may seem like an odd place to look for birds, but I have discovered that if I distance myself from their nesting areas, the birds will begin chirping and singing and moving about, and that makes it easier to see them.
Depending on the time of year, it’s surprising how many different varieties of birds pass through this area. We don’t always see them because we aren’t looking for them. We can increase our chances of seeing a unique bird simply by being aware of the possibilities. There are field guides and local checklists available, and with a little investigating, you can become familiar with the different groups of migratory birds.
It is also important to take a second look at any bird that you notice. That brown bird under the hedge might not be one of the local sparrows – it might be a Swainson’s thrush, just arrived from Panama. That yellowish bird in the tree might not be a local goldfinch – instead it might be a Cape May warbler that has just flown in from Jamaica. During the early spring, migratory songbirds are everywhere, pausing for a moment in practically every tree. Just by paying attention, you may get to make the acquaintance of some amazing world travelers.
You may be wondering why I am giving you instructions about birdwatching when there are so many other important things going on in our world today. The point is that in order to be a successful birdwatcher, you have to pay attention. Today’s gospel is about paying attention.
“Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matt 9:35-36, NRSV)
My first inclination, when reading these verses is to wonder why the crowds were “harassed and helpless.” Who? Why? What were they experiencing that would cause Matthew to describe them as “sheep without a shepherd?” We don’t know the answers to these questions because neither Jesus nor Matthew provided that detail. There are clues in the surrounding passages, but in this section of verses, what we should pay particular attention to is the fact that Jesus was there, Jesus saw the crowds, and Jesus had compassion.
Jesus saw the crowds. That’s our starting point. It is his starting point; therefore, it should be ours as well, especially if we want to engage the community around us; that is, if we want to live immersed in a triune God, filled with the Holy Spirit and carry out the Great Commission. Jesus saw the crowd because he was within seeing distance, not removed, not behind walls and doors. He was approachable and accessible. He was out in the parking lot, where the people were gathered, having conversations and discovering what was happening in their lives. He wasn’t just passing through on the way to his next meeting or speaking opportunity. He was engaged in the in the community around him.
We know he was engaged because of the next phrase in the verse. Not only did he see the crowd, but in seeing it, he had compassion. His compassion wasn’t disembodied, caring in the abstract, or seeing problems that need solutions. No, he had compassion because he took a second look and noticed the people as individuals with unique circumstances. He didn’t see a yellow bird and call it a finch. He saw the pain and the hurt and the anger and the helplessness.
So, what does it mean to see the people? To really see them? Not to prejudge or categorize, but to simply see? To see them as people worthy of compassion and care? We have to be willing to do what Jesus did and get to a place where we can actually see and hear. We might see that the people around us are harassed and helpless, suffering from the lack of a savior. Or, we might see a group of people fully empowered by an almighty God who has equipped them to rise up and say, “We have had enough!” We don’t know what we will see unless we truly look.
Perhaps it would be helpful for us to stand in the place of the other for a moment. Consider what it means, what it feels like to be seen, rather than being overlooked or ignored and pigeonholed. How does it feel to know that someone has seen the real self, hidden underneath a tough exterior and that someone still manages to love and accept us. What a profound difference that makes in our lives, in our hearts, in our self-image. Should we do any less when we seek to engage the community around us?
Because Jesus sees and has compassion, because he knows that it is God’s will that all are gathered into the loving arms of grace, Jesus calls the twelve. And this is significant, because just before he does this, he says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” When Jesus calls the twelve, he has a missionary task for them. They are to be the laborers. The community isn’t called together for their own sake. The twelve aren’t called in order to tend to their own souls, to make sure they are right with God. They are called to go out and be the church that sees the crowds.
As we read this text, we can’t help but wonder how it might apply to us today. Sure, we can name missionaries of history and today who still go out, not expecting payment, not relying on an abundance of resources, but relying on the hospitality of strangers. If we continue reading the verses that follow, however, we see the inherent dangers of Christ’s mission, and also the radical call of the gospel. The laborers in the fields come to upset the status quo, to be those dandelions that I talked about last week popping up in the middle of manicured green lawns – and doing this kind of thing is never an easy task.
But how do we rely on something other than our own resources, our comforts, when we seek to see the people? It must be exactly that, that we see first. We don’t approach the other with answers already tied up in a package. We don’t come to our neighbors because we want to fix them, or threaten them, or chastise them. We come to see them. We don’t rely on our theology, on our preferences for worship and our language for prayer. We come truly empty-handed so that we can see our neighbor without the filters.
Why were the crowds harassed and helpless? Mostly because they were Jewish and they were poor. They didn’t have the status of Roman citizens, and those who did really didn’t care. They were hungry and they were sick. They were persecuted and killed for sport. And their leaders blamed their circumstances on their sin. When we take a close look at the events that are occurring around us in the 21st Century, or perhaps even in just the last few weeks, what are we willing to see?
What we are being asked to do is not easy. We can’t just flip a switch and turn off our discomfort and prejudices. It is not even a matter of simply saying, “This is what I’m going to do.” But if we try again and again to see the people who surround us, then maybe we’ll not only see why they are harassed and helpless, but also who is harassing them and why do they feel so helpless?
And maybe if we start listening, we’ll see them as resources of strength and grace that cause us to be amazed, and we’ll be able to give the God they may or may not know thanks for the blessing of seeing them. What is most likely is that if we look long enough, we’ll see ourselves in them, and them in us. We are like them, and they are like us in the ways that really matter. And that, too, can be an occasion of praise.
“Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.”
Jesus is aware of the difficulty of the mission he has charged his disciples with, and as we carry it out, humbly, and without trying to bring glory to ourselves, keep in mind that Jesus has compassion for us too. Let us pray…
When you leave this place, go with confidence in God’s gracious love and mercy. Go, ready to proclaim the good news and serve our Lord by caring for others. AMEN.